Current and former Ulster Unionist grandees have urged UUP supporters to vote in favour of leaving the “out of control” EU – in direct contravention of the party’s policy.
In an open letter which emphasises how split the UUP is on the issue of the referendum, seven of the most senior figures in the UUP over the last 40 years directly appeal to those who feel affinity with the party to endorse a Leave vote in Thursday’s referendum.
The letter has been signed by former leader Lord Trimble, former MEP and MP Lord Kilclooney, former MP Lord Maginnis – who are now no longer members of the party – as well as by four current Ulster Unionists: David Campbell, James Cooper and Lord Rogan, who all served as party chairman, and ex-MP David Burnside.
Significantly, the letter places the issue into the realm of “principle”, arguing that Ulster Unionism has historically been predicated upon protecting British sovereignty and saying that the party should not now abandon that stance.
The letter follows the statement by UUP MP Tom Elliott earlier this week that he is likely to vote to leave the EU.
In the letter – which is published in full today in Farming Life – the signatories argue that leaving the EU would be a step which would “re-establish the primacy of democracy” and would have “the potential to kick-start a British renaissance of global proportions”.
They said: “We write to appeal to all Ulster Unionists to vote to leave the European Union on 23 June.
“The European Union has got out of control. It has expanded far beyond its original remit and is heading towards a federal European State. The people of the United Kingdom have a unique opportunity to reverse this and restore sovereignty to our own democratically-elected Parliament.
“Ulster Unionism has always been first and foremost about protecting the sovereignty and independence of the entire United Kingdom and we should not resile from that principled position now.”
The UUP veterans argue that the UK should not fear “an exit from being governed and dictated to from Brussels”, adding that as the UK is a net contributor to the EU and net importers from the EU, “the United Kingdom will benefit, not be harmed, from new trade arrangements”.
By contrast, UUP MEP Jim Nicholson yesterday said that if the UK votes to leave there will be “an unprecedented situation” where the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic becomes the border between the UK and the EU.
He accused the Leave camp of being “disingenuous with voters when it says there will be minimal impact on our border”.
If that does not happen, he warned, there could be border checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Of that prospect, he said: “I don’t want to be treated as a second class citizen in my own country.”
But the UUP Brexiteers said: “As architects of the Belfast Agreement we utterly reject the dishonest scaremongering that a vote to leave Europe will undermine peace in Northern Ireland. The Agreement provided robust structures to enable ministers, North and South, to meet regularly and reach agreed positions in the interests of the island as a whole, and to meet in a British-Irish Council to further co-operation throughout the British Isles. We have no doubt that these fora will prove invaluable in reaching sensible arrangements with the Republic of Ireland following a ‘leave’ vote.”
In addition to the joint letter, Lord Kilclooney has also written a letter to the News Letter, elaborating on his own support for Brexit.